Timeless Writing Advice

I’ve been reading a controversial collection of short stories called Crimes of Love. (Oxford World Classic, translated by David Coward) The author is none other than the notorious Marquis de Sade. That’s right, the man’s whose name is the origin of the term sadism. Before you bail on me, just listen. As a preface to the collection, the Marquis includes his insightful Essay On Novels.  I am pleased to share some of his timeless wisdom with you today.

“The novel, if I may express it so, is the ‘picture of the manners of every age’. To the philosopher who seeks to know the nature of man, it is as indispensable as history. The historian’s pencil can draw a man only in his public roles, when he is not truly himself: ambition and pride cover his face with a mask which shows only these two passions and not the man entire. The novelist’s pen, on the other hand, captures his inner truth and catches him when he puts his mask aside, and the resulting sketch, which is far more interesting, is also much truer; that is the point of novels.”

“The first and most important requirement is an understanding of human nature.  … A man learns nothing when he talks; he learns by listening. Which is why those who talk the most are, in the ordinary run of things, fools.”

“Any fool can pick a rose and pluck its petals, but the man of genius breathes its scent and paints its forms: that is the kind of author we will read.”

“But while I advise you to embellish, I forbid you to depart from what is plausible. The reader has every right to feel aggrieved when he realizes that too much is being asked of him. He feels that the author is trying to deceive him, his pride suffers and he simply stops believing the moment he suspects he is being misled.”

“No one forces you to ply the trade you follow. But if you do choose it, then acquit yourself to the best of your ability. And above all, you should not think of writing as a way of earning your living. If you do, your work will smell of poverty. It will be colored by your weakness and be as thin as your hunger. There are other trades which you can take up…  Our opinion of you will not be any poorer, and since you will be sparing us acres of boredom, we may even think the better of you.”

Regarding characters:

“If you send your characters on a voyage, be sure you are acquainted with the countries where their travels lead them, and spin your tales with such magic that I can identify with them. Remember that I voyage at their side wherever you send them to, and that I may know more than you and will not excuse your errors in reporting manners and costumes nor forgive a geographic blunder.  …you must make your descriptions of your chosen localities authentic, or else you should stay at home. This is the only area of what you write where invention cannot be tolerated, unless the lands to which you transport me are imaginary.”

“Avoid any display of moral earnestness. Morality is not something anyone wants in a novel. … It should never be the author who preaches, but his characters, and even then only when the circumstances leave him no alternative.”

And finally, in his defense (because he was in trouble most of the time…) he writes:

“It is not my wish to make vice attractive. … I harbor no dangerous plan to make women love men who deceive them, but on the contrary, to ensure that they loathe them. …  And with this in mind I have made those of my heroes who tread the path of vice so repulsive that they will certainly inspire neither pity nor love. In this I make bold to claim that I am a more moral writer than those who make their villains attractive.”

Fascinating insight, no? And really, advice on novel writing that stands the test of time. As always I hope you enjoyed and found this helpful.

#weekly #creativewriting

Organize Your Writing

One of the things that can get out of hand quick when you’re writing a novel is keeping track of the details. As the story pours out beneath your fingers tapping away on the keyboard, you don’t want to have to stop and page back through the previous 10,000 words to find an important detail that’s relevant to a scene you’re currently developing. It might be things like who said what to whom, how many days have passed, does it makes sense with the way the plot is unfolding, and so forth.

I use several tools to organize my writing so as to avoid rereading the whole manuscript to find one detail. Here are a few of them:

  1. Timeline spread sheet:  this is essential for keeping track of the order of events. The way I do it is to decide on a date for the opening of the story, and since my books are set in present day, I usually pick a day and the date of the current year. Then for each day on which action happens, I make a brief note of the significant event. For days where nothing happens I may make an entry that reads: August 4-6 Jen waits for news from the police, or something like that.
  2. Character biography database: this can be as simple as writing your character’s physical description, age, career and hobbies on an inex card. I keep mine filed on another spreadsheet. Other details that are helpful to include are personality traits. List things like he is intelligent, short tempered, bossy, meek, shy, funny, easy going, intense, artistic, serious or grumpy. You may also include events that have shaped their life so far. For example they were raised in a wealth and comfort or they were abused as a child. They lived in the city or grew up on a farm. They might have been happily married and widowed or divorced with a nasty custody battle. All this helps shape the way your characters will act and react in certain situations.
  3. Pinterest boards: this is something that won’t appeal to everyone, but I like doing it. I create Pinterest boards for each of my novels and “cast actors” to “play the roles” of each character. This helps me to “see” the character perform the action in the story.
  4. Mapping the location: I physically draw the layout of my locations: the town, the character’s house or apartment layouts, and so forth, again to help me visualize the scenes. And you don’t need to be an artist to make this work for you. A crude map is fine. No one else has to see it!

Keeping track of the details means you won’t be making as many mistakes along the way. This will save you a lot of time and aggravation when you begin proofreading and editing. And being able to visualize your characters and the setting of your story will help make it more real to you and that will translate into your work. As always, I hope this was helpful. Have a great weekend, everyone!

#weekly #creativewriting

Need Inspiration? Then, watch TV!

Before I started hardcore watching television again, I had a month’s worth of writer’s block. I could barely write about Swiss cheese in an interesting way, no matter how hard I tried (to be fair, work has been crazy; thus, my creative juices had been sucked out of me). So, I became an information vegetable/sponge and started watching television at work. Oddly enough, my inspiration came from watching Littlest Pet Shop (2012). I really like the orange hedgehog named Russell. He is very similar to me because he is obsessed with neatness and order and is intellectual (and lets everyone know about it, too) and surprisingly the most social. So, my stories have involved him or rather, people being in love with him. Blythe, the human who takes care of the pets as her day job, is the person I pair him with. She is also similar to me because she works very hard and is always busy doing something productive. She also likes to balance many facets of her life like I do. Also, Russell is her favorite pet, so it only seemed appropriate (despite the non-canon aspect of this unique pairing). He also spends more time with her than any of the other pets do; there was an entire episode devoted to both of them spending alone time together at a sleepover at the pet shop (until Sunil (the moongoose) and Vinnie (the gecko) crashed the party). Also, there are many times when they are caught spending time together without the other pets (an example of when Russell is sitting on the sales counter while Blythe was the cashier). So, I’ve been writing a bunch of RussellxBlythe fan fiction; one of my stories is devoted to a spin-off of that episode.

So, if you have severe writer’s block like I do, you could always revert to writing fan fiction. I know that it might be frowned upon to encourage fan fiction, but it’s a good start to get out of having a writer’s block.

Xara Nahara O’Connor
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Unexpected consequences 

From Diary of a New writer – November 2015. This series chronicled my experiences as a first time self published author. And having just done it again for the fourth time, I can tell you, some things don’t change. 

This was the most difficult of all my diary entries to write. It’s a very personal post and one that I hope prepares some of you for the unexpected consequences of writing and publishing your first novel. This is not meant to be discouraging but it is realistic. When you write and publish your book, you might not get the reaction you expect. Not from the marketplace and not from your loved ones. For those of you who’ve already gone through this, I’d welcome you to share your experiences in the comments. Ok. Deep breath.

I had created this thing. This story I was so proud of. I enjoyed writing it. I enjoyed reading it. It was the kind of book I’d buy for myself. It had taken months to perfect. It was time to get the word out. The truth is, even with exhaustive marketing, it is tough to sell books. In fact, buried among all the other titles available in today’s market, it will be a miracle if anyone even finds your book. Sure you could spam the crap out of Twitter, Facebook and so forth. Tell me how many books caught your attention that way. … Right, me neither. Don’t be discouraged. It’s going to take time. You will not be an overnight success. If instant sales are important to you, consider doing some paid advertising. But please don’t tell me you are only in it for the money.

Here’s the rest of the story: Three Empty Frames was published at the end of June, 2015. There it was! Out there for everyone to read. I made a few early sales! Woo hoo! I announced it to my friends on Facebook and Instagram. Surprise! Apparently, not everyone is going to care that you wrote a book. Even worse, your family and friends might even think you’re crazy. Especially if you already have a day job, like me. (If you are a writer by profession and just starting out, that might be different.)

You know what? I am totally struggling with how to put this into words. I don’t want to make my friends who read this uncomfortable and I don’t want to come off as a whiner either. (I really hate whining!) Oh, who am I kidding, none of my real world friends are reading this blog anyway. And that’s kind of the point of this article. I really thought more people would be at least mildly interested in the fact that I wrote a novel! (This does not apply to a small group of my dear friends who were just as excited about the book as I was; they know this isn’t about them!)

But in general, hardly anyone asked me about it. Some who did would whisper to me, “I heard you wrote a book,” like it was a secret I was ashamed of. Like, “I heard you have toenail fungus. I’m so sorry.” Being a writer is not embarrassing, come on! Could it be that no one thought I could possibly be any good? Or was it, “Oh, she’s only self published,” with a snort and an eye roll, kind of thing? I’ll never know, because I will not ask. In fact, I’ve come to terms with it largely because I did ask the question in a safe place: a writer’s forum.

I was amazed to find out how many other writers experience the same responses from their friends and family. I will recreate that conversation here, without the names:
My question: How do your friends/family feel about your writing? Since writing is not my day job, it seems like nobody is really taking it seriously. It kind of hurts that no one seems to care that I’m doing this. I’m trying to not be oversensitive but it’s bumming me out. Anyone else have that experience?

Here are some answers:

J: I don’t really talk to my family about my writing–I’ve been writing since I was a kid, so they know I like doing it and that’s all they need to know. I talk about writing with my friends, but my real life friends aren’t writers, so there’s only so much they want to hear about it. It doesn’t matter if people in your life don’t take it seriously. Do you take it seriously? Will you pursue it no matter what they say? Is it something you enjoy? Also, make some writing friends. It’ll help you out tons if you have some people who understand what you go through

L: It’s pretty common, I think. My family supports me on a superficial level, but they don’t understand what it takes to put a novel together. Keep in touch with your writing tribe — we understand.

S: My family and friends roll their eyes even after my 4th book got published

R: My family and spouse are all hugely supportive. Most friends too. I did have a friend who I shared a writing frustration with (she asked how it was going and I went beyond “fine”). She told me “good thing it’s just a hobby.” She meant to make me feel better. By then I had contracted with an agent and had a book on submission to pub houses. I was beyond hobby. I told her as much, kindly, but it was always awkward after that.

D: Hi Meg–I’d be lying if I said that writing isn’t a lonely place. You’re going to come to find that no one in your life is as interested in your writing as you are. And that’s okay! Because there are loads of us out there who understand exactly what you are going through right now, and we’re here for you. And we care about your writing. We know what goes into it: the heartache, the tears. We know how hard it is when a loved one seems disinterested. Try not to take it personally. People who don’t write aren’t as interested in writing because they have no way of knowing how much goes into it and why it’s so truly important to us. We get it though, Meg. We’re with you. You are so, SO not alone in this!!!

Some fabulous advice there. Yes, being a writer is a lonely endeavor. Unless you quickly make it to the best seller list, it will likely be your experience too. Remember that your blogging buddies and writing group pals will understand. Join forums, find other writers and make friends. These are the people who will relate to your struggles, help when you need advice, give you a kick in the butt when you’re moping and rejoice with you when you succeed! My door is always open for anyone who needs it. As a new writer, I might not have all the answers but I promise I’ll listen!

#weekly #creativewriting

It’s time to edit…

You’ve finished your novel, now what?

The next task was to go back, re-read and polish it up.  At this stage, most successful authors hand the manuscript off to their trusted editors.  You, on the other hand, are a nobody, fumbling along on your own.  What do you do now?  Try and self edit?  Shell out the cash to have a pro take a look?  Decisions, decisions.

What exactly does editing entail? There are two basic aspects: editing and proof-reading. A thorough edit may involve closing plot holes, altering time lines, rewriting clumsy dialogue, etc. whereas proof reading is more about finding grammatical errors, misspellings and punctuation errors.

When I finished my first novel, I picked option number one.  Why?  Because as a first time, unpublished author, I didn’t feel I had the luxury of going with a pro.  Professional editing can get expensive.  Depending on the length of your document and the level of editing you choose, it can cost several hundred to several thousand dollars.  I did however, have a couple of cards up my sleeve.

One: I knew a guy.  My friend Kevin (not Fictional Kevin, my other friend, real life Kevin) used to work for a big publishing house and was able to give some needed advice.  He read the book for me and without actually editing, gave me some valuable pointers on polishing it up.  Two:  I knew another guy.  (Yeah, I have a lot of guy friends!)  My friend Brett is an English teacher.  He gave it a once over and pointed out some of the grammatical errors I was making.

Lastly, after I had read, re-read, re-written, and corrected my errors, I handed the finished manuscript off to some beta readers.  What is a beta reader?  The term simply refers to a non-professional reader who will read your manuscript with an eye to finding plot holes, disruptions in continuity, grammar and spelling mistakes and possibly highlighting aspects of the story that might be unbelievable.  The thing with choosing beta readers is this:  make sure they aren’t just going to tell you what you want to hear because they don’t want to hurt your feelings.  You NEED constructive criticism!  So your mom and dad, husband or wife might not be the best choice for beta readers!

Are you in a book club?  Ask your group to beta read for you.  How about an online writer’s group?  Some folks there might help you out.  Ask your blogging buddies here on WordPress to read for you.  Just be sure to choose people who will give you an honest opinion and some thoughtful feedback.  And attach a copyright warning to anything you send out, too.

Finally, when you’ve made changes based on the feedback you’ve received, put the manuscript down.  Walk away.  Take a break and read something else.  Then, after some time has gone by, pick it up and read it through one last time.  There is a point at which, you just need to stop screwing with it and put it out there!

#weekly #creativewriting

How To Write With a Partner

How-To-Write-With-a-Partner

Fictional Kevin and Dr. Meg – The Collaborators

FK: Several months ago I had been bantering about with several new WordPress friends: Dr. Meg, Dr. Shell and Jason. In my typical snarky fashion, I touted my superiority, made fun of their posts and was generally a nuisance.

They all loved me (of course.)

Jason made a serious post about how he was NOT accepting guest posts on his blog. I, of course, took that as a challenge. I decided to write a short story featuring him and my new blogger friends. It was compelling, so he decided to repost it on his blog. Win for the Fictional Boy.

If you read The Post it is, like most of my fiction, concerned with death and gore. Dr. Meg read it and made some comments. The online love was obvious.

M: I had a new follower… Fictional Kevin. His first comments had been on a post about Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing. “Seems like a pretty funny guy,” I thought. Ok, I’ll follow back.

I visited and commented on his blog a couple of times and then this happened…

On a post about sending himself text messages to remember ideas while he’s out and about, here is our exchange:

Meg: Funny!!!! I use notes on my phone too. How is that harder than sending yourself a text, Kevin? Are YOU sober?

Kevin: Don’t mess with my mojo this morning, Meg. I will cut a bitch. And I am mostly sober. Well, sort of. Remember: Hemingway said “write drunk, edit sober.” So I’m just like Hemingway.
He was an American writer.



Meg: Fine, ‘Ernest’ I will leave you to your scribbling! Stomping out the virtual door in a huff “Bitch indeed,” she muttered.



Kevin: Shouts after her: “and put on something nice for once, geez!”



Meg; Sniff

The came The Post. Seriously, go read it and ask me why the hell I stuck around. I can’t explain it myself. I barely knew this guy and he slaughtered me (in the story) in a most gruesome way after insulting me, my blog and my writing. For some reason I didn’t run screaming, I responded:

There he was, on the park bench, waiting for her. It was strange that he’d suggested they meet in the park on such a dreary day. She hadn’t given it much thought. She was too excited to see him. After all Kevin was one of her few writer friends. He of all people would be happy that her book had made the best seller list. As she approached, he looked up at her smiling.

“Hey,” she said, returning the smile.

He rose and offered her the spot where he’d been sitting since it was dry. Instead of sitting beside her, he picked something up from the ground and stood to face her.

“You smug bitch,” he muttered, before landing the first blow.

The first one didn’t kill her, neither did the second. Through the physical pain, her heart was breaking. She thought he’d understand. She thought he’d be happy for her. She thought he was her friend.

Kevin’s response? “This is perfect.”

It apparently was the beginning of a beautiful relationship…

FK: Dr. Meg responded almost positively to her untimely demise in “The Post”. I didn’t find out until later even her hubby, Harry, was concerned.

We continued to banter back and forth on our blogs and eventually she was able to see past my rugged good looks and charm to the real me.

For some years I had considered writing fiction. I make my living writing non-fiction, but I wanted to expand my horizons. Writing fiction is far different than writing non.

Reading Meg’s blog, I realized she is far more competent at fiction than I, so I paid close attention to the things she was writing, trying to learn. It helped. I wrote a couple short stories and also wrote more on a couple longer-term pieces I was working on.

After we got to know one another we exchanged emails.

I began to realize I needed help to be able to write fiction well. I struggled to write dialog and deadlines were an issue – with fiction, I had none. After getting comfortable with Meg and with her writing style, I proposed a limited collaboration. A mid-length story, 14 chapters around 1,000 words each, written alternately as a serial with each chapter appearing on our blogs weekly.

Foolishly, she fell into my trap.

M: Kevin thinks he’s so smart, doesn’t he? Well, he is, actually. And I immediately recognized what a great opportunity and challenge this would be for me. It would push me to write out of my comfort zone. Even though it was not without some misgivings, I left the basic idea for the story up to him, since he had suggested this whole escapade. I even let him write the first chapter, knowing that would give me the final word. And thus, more control over the story. evil laugh

You see, originally we thought we’d keep our alternating chapters secret from one another so that we’d have to “respond” to one another’s writing. But as the story progressed we realized that a true collaboration was going to have to happen if this tale was going to be any good. And THAT’S when I foolishly fell into his trap!

FK: Writing the first chapter was easy for me, but it lacked “something.” I am good at identifying the psychological makeup and backstory for characters. I had that down cold. I can even write a compelling bit of narrative if I work hard and hold my mouth just right.

When I got done, there was something missing. That first chapter was all “tell” and no “show.”

I sent it to Meg for her input. She agreed. She helped me craft some dialog that showed David “being” David, rather than simply me telling the reader about him. It improved the chapter dramatically (pun intended.)

This is one of the best reasons to get a writing partner: He/she can fill in the gaps in your own ability.

M: I have the same habits as Kevin in creating backstory for my characters. Write a little biography on them, things that won’t necessarily be included in the narrative, but information that helps you shape their behavior. Up to this point though, I hadn’t written a character into a situation as dangerous and psychologically manipulative as the one Dr. Melody Rivers was in with David Twichell. The difficult part was that I had largely based Melody on myself. I now had to really imagine how I would react in those circumstances. I had a mini freak out at one point. It was unnerving to put oneself in the crosshairs of a potential killer. Thus, being able to talk it through with my writing partner was invaluable. The experience of collaboration has made both of us better writers.

FK: After 14 weeks or so, we had finished our story at 17,000 words or so. Our readers enjoyed it and we enjoyed creating it. We’ll be putting it up at Amazon and will do a free weekend if you want to pick it up. You can join our announcement list here.

Some things we learned from the process:

  • A writing partner can help you have deadlines for your writing
  • A writing partner who has strengths you do not have can make you a better writer
  • A writing partner can help you see your characters and their thoughts and actions in a different light
  • A writing partner can brainstorm plot and character ideas with you and help you both create a more compelling story
  • A writing partner can act out dialog with you to give it a more “real” feeling for the reader
  • A writing partner can become a good friend – this was the best part for me.

Once we got the story completed, Meg and I along with our significants met in Gatlinburg for a meal and beers. It was fun and I think Meg and I will be friends for many years to come.

If I don’t murder her.

M: Or I murder him first… See? I always get the final word!

#weekly #creativewriting

The Oxford Comma – A Guest Post

In the English language, most grammar is pretty set in stone. From a young age kids are taught the rights and wrongs, even if they choose to ignore it in their everyday online conversations.
But there is one grammar rule that’s open to opinion: the Oxford comma.

There are two groups of people: those who adamantly use it, and those who don’t. Somehow, I fall into the mysterious third group: those who don’t really care either way.

What is the Oxford comma? It’s the comma that comes before the last thing in a list. Example: “I went to the store to buy apples, grapes, cookies, and pasta.” I could write the sentence without that last comma like: “I went to the store to buy apples, grapes, cookies and pasta.” and it’d still make sense.

There’s a really interesting kid’s book called Eats Shoots And Leaves that highlights the importance of commas, but in more obvious ways. The Oxford comma isn’t all that obvious and that’s why its use isn’t mandatory.

That being said, there are some cases where its inclusion makes for easier comprehension. Take the following sentence for example:

“At the concert I saw my friends, Madonna and Taylor Swift.”

One reading this could technically assume that my friends ARE Madonna and Taylor Swift, when I was really just listing who I saw at the concert. But if an Oxford comma was there, there would be no confusion.

“At the concert I saw my friends, Madonna, and Taylor Swift.”

I know I said I don’t really care about its use but honestly, I don’t have a preference because I was never taught to. I’m very precise about my regular commas and I know how to use a semi-colon, which is more than I can say for my engineer father (seriously!), but I was taught about those in school and because I pursued writing, I’m more aware.

I do understand the Oxford comma’s function. Lately, I do try to include it in my writing, but it’ll take time to become as natural to me.

Do you use it? Do you find it important? Will you try to use it if you don’t?

#guestpost #grammar #feedback